Written by: Lakshmi Magon, Dalla Lana Global Journalism Fellow, Science Communicator, University of Toronto
This year, three studies showed that humour is useful for engaging the public about climate change. The studies, published in The Journal of Science Communication, Comedy Studies and Science Communication, added to the growing wave of scientists, entertainers and politicians who agree.
In March 2017, the American Psychological Association published a report defining ecoanxiety as “chronic fear of environmental doom.” The report referred to literature that described an increase in depression and anxiety caused by peoples’ “inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change.”
With psychological stakes this high, humour may seem inappropriate. But Phil McCordic — a Canadian actor, writer and producer of children’s programming and the host of TVOntario’s Science Max educational series — thinks it could be a way to access “the attention of a lot of people you wouldn’t have otherwise.”
“Humour is so useful for children’s programming because it grabs attention,” says McCordic, who adds he believes this can be applied to adults too.
“Climate-change humour stops people from worrying about their politics and lets them take in the information …. Scientists don’t always understand their audience. Getting someone to laugh is half of the work of getting them to understand.”
McCordic’s views are echoed by researchers such as Christofer Skurka, assistant professor of film and media studies at the Bellisario College of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. His research has shown that humour is a useful tool for making 18- to 24-year-olds more politically engaged in climate change.
Beth Osnes is an associate professor of theatre at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her research shows that the creative techniques used in theatre are a useful tool for climate-change communication. Osnes says that communicating climate change to young people using humour is “magical.”
“Climate change isn’t a laughing matter but sometimes you have to laugh at your pain to get to a solution,” she says.
Climate comedy has wide-ranging applications
The climate-change humour trend isn’t isolated to research institutions. Using comedy to tackle climate-change debate is found in mainstream media, including in the comedy of comedian John Oliver and The Late Show host Stephen Colbert.
The Onion, a landmark American satirical media outlet, has headlines that include “Report: If Earth Continues To Warm At Current Rate Moon Will Be Mostly Underwater By 2400” and “Sighing, Resigned Climate Scientists Say To Just Enjoy Next 20 Years As Much As You Can.”
YouTuber Adam Levy, who earned a doctorate in atmospheric physics from Oxford University and operates under the handle Climate Adam, uses humour to make climate-change science more accessible.
“Science should be serious! But it should also be funny, challenging, impressive and a range of other things,” says Levy. “I want to make climate change less scary by tapping into that funny side.”
The usefulness of climate-change humour in the political sphere is also raised by Tim Grant, who was the Green Party candidate for the Toronto riding of University-Rosedale in the Oct. 21 federal election. Grant is also the co-editor of the environmental education magazine Green Teacher, which is described on its website as “dedicated to helping educators, both inside and outside of schools, promote environmental awareness among young people aged 6-19.”
Grant says those under the age of 16 are “developmentally unready to deal with the climate crisis.” He says when they find out about climate change, they “feel hopeless” and this discourages them from taking part in the political process when they reach voting age as their anxiety and sense of helplessness persists.
Humour is a way to introduce the issues associated with climate change while allowing young people to remain engaged when they’re older, Grant says.
Instead of minimizing the grave nature of climate change, humour can have the power to maximize the impact of climate-change science and the media.
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Lakshmi Magon does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.